McGuinness on peace mission to Sri Lanka

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Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Fein chief negotiator, is on a new mission: to try to bring peace to the war-torn country of Sri Lanka as it teeters on the brink of civil war.

Mr McGuinness, who this week flew by military helicopter over the jungles of Sri Lanka into territory controlled by the Tamil Tigers, is trying to persuade the rebels to return to the negotiating table.

About 700 people have been killed in Sri Lanka since April, more than half of them civilians. The Sri Lankan army's third most senior general was assassinated in a suicide bombing widely blamed on the Tigers last month. The Sri Lankan government has carried out air strikes against Tiger-held territory, and there are reports that the Tigers are forcing civilians in the areas they control to undergo military training.

Mr McGuinness said he was in Sri Lanka to try to persuade both sides to return to negotiations that collapsed earlier this year.

"I was able to share with the Tamil leadership the experiences of the Irish peace process," he said in a statement issued by Sinn Fein. "My core message was that both sides need to act decisively to prevent the downward spiral into all-out conflict. The reality is that, just as in Ireland, there can be no military victory and that the only alternative to endless conflict is dialogue, negotiations and accommodation."

Mr McGuinness and Sinn Fein appear to be taking an interest in conflict resolution around the world. His peace mission to Sri Lanka comes after a similar visit to meet Basque separatist leaders in Spain last month.

In Sri Lanka he is taking on one of the most intractable conflicts in the world - and one of the bloodiest. At least 64,000 people were killed in the two-decade civil war, before a Norwegian-brokered ceasefire was agreed in 2002, a ceasefire that is crumbling.

Peace talks that began after the ceasefire collapsed, and efforts to restart them have so far failed.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are fighting for an independent homeland for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority in the north and east of the island.

The Tigers have been blamed for a return to violence after a series of attacks on Sri Lankan military personnel since last December, although they deny responsibility for the attacks.